While I like Kevin Spacey as a film actor – and admire much of the work he has done with the Old Vic since he took over as Artistic Director – I’ve never been enamoured of him as a stage performer. On stage he can be overly mannered, over keen to impress, to the point that you’re never quite able to forget you’re watching Kevin Spacey in the act of Acting. Perversely, this makes him an ideal fit for Richard III – who is, of course, Shakespeare’s biggest ham. Not content with playing false face to his enemies, Richard’s twisted ego wants the validation of witnesses: genius craves an audience. One of the joys of the play is the fact that we are made complicit in his schemes; the constant “see what I did there?” asides make us his accomplices. One of the clearest indications of Richard’s descent into evil is that he no longer seeks to take the audience with him.
Reunited here with American Beauty director Sam Mendes for the final Bridge Project, Spacey expertly captures this side of the hunchback king. In a tremendously physical performance, his Richard is a sly, snarling trickster who takes great pleasure in his own hypocrisy, and almost can’t quite hide his disbelief that others are buying his humble foot-soldier act. Spacey is supported by the kind of top-calibre cast a production of this magnitude can secure. Hadyn Gwynne excels as Elizabeth, whose slide from secure Queen to devastated widow and mourning mother is etched on her face: her confrontation with King Richard, when he seeks to woo her daughter, packs real emotional punch, and the fact that he believes even for one second that she would hand over her daughter to such a man is a clear indicator that his once astute judgement is failing. The other standout is Chuk Iwuji’s Buckingham, all smiling, slimy career politician, realising too late just how far Richard is willing to go. As Anne, Annabel Scholey is slightly less successful given the difficulty of the role, but her sexually charged wooing scene with Richard is a high point, and she ably charts Anne’s journey from despairing widow to catatonic wife. Hastings is played as a suitably bluff northerner by Jack Ellis, oblivious of danger till the very moment of his downfall, and Jeremy Bobb gives us a suitably sinister Catesby, as a dead-eyed secret service agent to Richard’s president-King.
The contemporary setting works well with Mendes’ transatlantic cast and the staging is sublime, filled with the kind of great stylistic touches one would expect from a director with such a grasp of what works visually. Tom Piper’s design is beautifully sparse: a room where all the walls are doors reflects the unsettling uncertainty of the times – you are never sure what is coming next and from where. In the second half of the play, this transforms into a tunnel leading to blackness, an echo of the kingdom’s descent into darkness. The production of full of these pleasing touches, including a scene where the citizens are played as commuters on a train; Mendes decision to fill the auditorium with actors to cheer on Buckingham’s plea for Richard to take the crown adds a thrilling immediacy to the action. Richard’s off-stage acceptance of this plea is delivered via a video feed to a big screen, something that has drawn some criticism, but it works well: Spacey’s false piety is writ large on his face.
There are flaws. Gemma Jones’ performance as Queen Margaret is a miscalculation;she comes across as comedy madwoman rather than someone haunted by the spectre of sins past, and the decision to have her reappear on stage when her prophecies are fulfilled is unnecessarily heavy handed. As Richmond, Nathan Darrow provides a suitably strapping contrast to Richard’s deformity, but while he looks like a male model, his delivery is at times awkward and the one time in the production when hearing Shakespeare’s lines delivered with an American accent really jars.
Then there is Richard himself. For all of Spacey’s talent and an undeniably crowd pleasing presence, there is something lacking in his Richard. He gets plenty of laughs, and certainly ramps up the menace, but his performance feels at times oddly superficial. In the earlier acts, especially, we should be getting flashes of Richard’s true inner darkness peeking through his gleeful malevolence, hinting at what is to come, but it feels like this is just another act, another part of his performance. This means his eventual meltdown when it comes feels like slightly too little, slightly too late: a sudden collapse rather than a gradual unravelling.